Friends, I spend a lot of time on this site gushing. I gush about the cheeses of my dreams as I discover them. I gush about new cheesemakers who enter my orbit. But I almost never break away from my freaky dairy adoration to talk about what I do at work, which is this: I teach writing.
That’s right. I’m not a cheesemonger. I read for a living — good writing and uninspired writing. My goal? To push the good writers to write more, and to spark those who are uninspired to pluck more vibrant observations from the trees.
A couple weeks ago, I spoke to a group of Communications majors at Saint Joseph’s University about how to write a compelling blog post. As I was jotting my tips down on the back of a cheese wrapper, it occurred to me that maybe you’d find them useful. Whether you blog as a monger, maker, or marketer, may you find a few juicy bits here. After seven years of cheese blogging, here are the tips I lean on…
1. Imagine that your next post is going to get you a job/earn you a ribbon/inspire someone to mail you a surprise. Once your post goes live, it becomes the portal through which strangers discover you on Google. If it’s unforgettable, people will salivate. And follow your every crumb.
2. Visualize hundreds of people at desks (or in fields!) reading your post. How can you keep them from standing up to get a donut or becoming more interested in a cloud? Can you take them on a fascinating journey through some part of your world? Teach them new information?
3. Start your post with a fiercely interesting title – one that issues an invitation or a promise. Like “Enter My Cheese Cave for a Sneak Peek of X” (Invitation.) Or, “Three Tips for Successful Team Building Behind the Cheese Counter” (Promise.)
4. Sniff out what’s interesting about your work. When you are stirring curds/wrapping wedges/riding the subway to Murray’s, jot down a list of possible posts — The Cheese That Changed Everything, What I Learned from Pairing Cheese with Absinthe, etc. Jot down titles of things you would like to explore so that you can begin to gather the details.
5. Snap photos and record your observations. Carry a notebook or use a note on your phone where you store ideas for posts. If you enter the day looking for story ideas, you’re going to see possibilities everywhere you look.
6. Write a first draft, then wait. For crying out loud, don’t hit “publish” on a first draft. Sketch out your post, then come back after dinner, preferably with a little digestif, and proofread. As a little challenge, I often look for 3 verbs I can make more interesting. Then I try to add a specific image or two that will be memorable. (Like the donut, the absinthe.)
7. Lay out your post with care – as if you were preparing a room for a special guest. (Who wants to open a post that looks like a cluttered bedroom?) Use whitespace, boldface, bullets. Layer in your best photos and keep them all the same size, preferably on the large side. A busy screen makes readers feel jumpy, overwhelmed.
8. Keep your paragraphs short and give them lots of whitespace. An easy-to-read post looks like a long line of fortune-cookie fortunes. Or a chain of islands.
9. Proofread before you post. Show it to your mother. Show it to your grandmother.
10. Publish what you’re proud of, and the karma comes back two-fold. Good posts open doors. Great posts open even bigger doors.
Photo credit: Aimee Knight
I am off to England this week for my first tour with Cheese Journeys! If you’d like to tag along, follow @CheeseJourneys on Instagram. Our travel odyssey begins tomorrow and runs through October 4, and we’ll be hitting some of the best cheesemakers and cheese shops around Devon, Somerset, and London.
My co-conspirators include Di Bruno Bros. VP Emilio Mignucci, cheesemaker Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm, and a few other mystery guests. A huge thanks to Anna Juhl, fearless leader and founder of Cheese Journeys. From owning a cheese shop to launching her own travel company, she is growing artisan-cheese appreciation in a way that thrills me.
My goal for this trip is to tell you the story of original British Cheddar (we’ll meet Mary Quicke of Quicke’s Cheddar and stay at the estate of THE Jamie Montgomery of Montgomery’s Cheddar). I’m planning to use Instagram for the crumb-by-crumb version of the tour. Then I’ll offer highlights here, upon my return. Here is our itinerary.
Curious about Cheese Journeys? There are more trips in the works, including a 2016 Tour to France and the 2016 Tour of the Oregon Coast! I’m participating in an Enthusiast Tour and will be offering a workshop on digital storytelling and food photography. Cheese Journeys also offers tours for industry professionals and arranges custom food tours.
Purrrr. That was my first response when a box of French goat cheeses arrived on my rowhouse stoop in Philadelphia. A pair of them, like a bride and groom. Soft, delicate. The scent of the French countryside still detectable on their rinds.
Yes, this post is going to get romantic. If you’re eating lunch at your desk, you may want to close the door. You see, I have spent the last week with this pair in a little threesome – picnicking, drinking cocktails on the sofa, making eyes at one another other over breakfast, sneaking into the kitchen at night for love bites. It’s not often that such perfectly ripe goat cheeses appear in one’s life.
And so Sainte-Maure de Touraine and Chabichou du Poitou seduced me. Utterly.
Cocktails with Chabichou du Poitou
Chabichou (pronounced like shabby shoe) hit the wet bar right away. The bottle of Chartreuse was in her hands before we were properly introduced. No surprise. Chabichou is one of France’s oldest and most honorable cheeses – likely developed by the Saracens in the 8th century A.D. It seemed fitting, then, that she reached for Chartreuse, a historically French liqueur created by Carthusian monks. With its many wild herbs, it’s a perfect match for goat cheese, especially in an afternoon sipper.
A Chartreuse Cocktail for Chabichou
- 11/2 ounces genever (I used Boomsma)
- 1/4 ounce green Chartreuse
- 3 ounces tonic water
- Cucumber slices and fresh mint, for garnish
Instructions: To prepare the cocktail, fill a rocks glass with ice. Add genever and tonic. Float the Chartreuse on top, then garnish with abandon. Serve with crudité, almonds, olives, fruit.
Note: Genever, a precursor to gin, has malty notes – perfect for underscoring the nutty, yeasty flavors in Chabichou.
From my Tasting Notebook: Chabichou du Poitou
Appearance: imagine a mochi ball cheesecake
Aroma: yogurt, bread, wet hay
Taste/Texture: I love how the fudgy middle yields to a cream line just below the rind, which is veil thin. As the cheese relaxes, the cream line melts, weeps a little. Ah! I taste a rush of damp hay, butter, yeast, black pepper on the finish. It’s like taking a rainy fall walk in the country while eating a butter sandwich.
Pairing Ideas: Cucumber, mint, and marcona almonds. Honey and Dates. Crumbled atop sautéed cabbage or greens. Woven into scrambled eggs. Needs a crisp white wine (Sancerre).
A Salad with Sainte-Maure de Touraine
Sainte Maure was soft-spoken, more fragile. He reclined on the couch in his gray fur coat and murmured in his sleep about a salad. “Pistachios,” he whispered, his whiskers twitching. “Apples, grapes.”
I darted into the kitchen and rummaged for my mandoline. A cheese so delicate requires a salad of thin shavings, I think. I am in a phase of shaving everything (now, don’t take that the wrong way). Using a mandoline, I shredded cucumbers and apples, a few green onions, and then I tossed these with greens and some lemon. Nothing more.
Instead of adding pistachios on top, I climbed into the fridge to root out a jar of pistachio butter for smearing under the salad. The inspiration came from a salad I once ate that was served on a swirl of homemade pistachio butter — I love the memory of the fork tines catching on a little bit of that cream as I swept up each bite of salad.
Sainte-Maure de Touraine Salad with Apples and Pistachio Butter
- 1/2 green apple, cored, thinly sliced
- 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced
- 2 handfuls of mixed greens
- half a lemon
- sea salt
- dill and mint, for garnish
- handfuls of grapes
- 4 tablespoons pistachio butter (see note)
Instructions: Toss apple slices, celery, green onion, and greens in a bowl with lemon and sea salt. Mix with your hands. Serve on a plate you have prepared with a good shmear of pistachio butter. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and grapes.
Note: You can buy prepared pistachio butter, which I used initially. Then I tried making my own using a recipe from Coffee and Quinoa. All you have to do is combine a cup of pistachios with honey in a food processor – add some coconut oil along the way to smooth things out. The results are delicious, but I didn’t achieve quite the same ultra creamy consistency I yearned for. Just sayin’.
From my Tasting Notebook: Sainte-Maure de Touraine
Appearance: looks like a silver log under snowfall
Aroma: lemon, wet grass
Taste/Texture: Supple and creamy. The rind is like damp crepe paper. The flavors are delicate – like eating a cheese made of rain. Or baby tears.
Pairing ideas: Blackberry or blueberry jam, oaty crackers. A light jelly – like rose petal or Champagne.
Curious to check out Chabichou and Sainte-Maure? My samples were provided by The Original Chèvre, the first U.S. campaign to highlight the origins of goat cheese (that would be the French countryside!). Better yet, travel to France and look for them. Chabichou comes from the limestone plateau of the Haut Poitou; Sainte-Maure is made around Saint Maure in the Touraine and Poitou regions. Here’s a cheese map.
Want to receive a basket of French cheeses of your very own? Drop a comment describing a recipe or pairing you’d like to create with goat cheese. A winner will be selected on Tuesday, September 22 at noon EST. Note: This giveaway is now closed — the winner was randomly selected, Gwen W.
In the spring, I had a terrific intern from Saint Joseph’s University who assisted me with photo shoots, events, and design projects in exchange for many cheese boards. Recently, she offered to write a guest post about her dairy transformation. Please welcome Erin Konigsdorffer…
My name is Erin and I, recent college graduate and acolyte of Madame Fromage, find myself trying to summarize what it is like to be a “cheese intern.” That’s not my formal title but it’s pretty accurate. What else would you call a girl fawning over the delicacy of a brie rind or the texture of a sheep’s milk cheese? Cheese fanatic? Maybe that too.
In my last semester at Saint Joseph’s University, Tenaya gave me the opportunity to take a step into the world of cheese. Honestly, I had no idea that by the end I would be seriously considering the struggles of cheese packaging or admiring the subtle cream lines of a new particular cheese rendezvous. It’s as natural as falling asleep – one second you’re admiring the tasty nuts and hard cheeses without much thought and then suddenly you’re lecturing someone on a properly relaxed cheese.
So to be a cheese intern is: You make eyes at Melville from across the room – he’s all briny and mellow and svelte on the tongue. Someone else has to get the jam because you’re too busy swooning. And then, there is a hushed reverence to your voice in discussing Witchgrass’ ashy, wild appearance. You start to find yourself dreaming of pairings – breads, crackers, an endless dance of fruits and spreads and veggies galore behind closed eyelids. Your friends take you to bars for a cheese plate or two.
A cheese intern stares at packages, labels, delights in the lacey sticker of Paski Sir and contemplates cheese cards late into the night. You take to concocting pairings – honey, a slow cured sausage, and a smear of goat cheese. And those inevitable bites that are shoved into the mouth of a loved one with the accompanying phrase, “You HAVE to try this.”
Of course, no one warned me of these dangers. I was deep in thought, considering cheese mongers and the fonts they use on descriptive cheese placards when someone asked, “But cheese isn’t that complicated, is it?” And I gave it a thought.
Perhaps it’s the cheese world’s best kept secret: that cheese, in all its complexity – sweet, salty, buttery, crumbly, funky, the list goes on – the entry fee is to just eat it. Eat the Midnight Moon, covet your neighbor’s Fat Cat, and go searching for your own Blow Horn to keep your mouth busy. And then, when you’ve sampled those, go find something new. To be a cheese intern, an acolyte, the novitiate of cheese is to realize that all you have to do is keep eating your way forward.
Last year, I came across a term that’s been orbiting my mind: rural entrepreneur. It’s a term that Heather Paxton uses in The Life of Cheese when she describes visiting artisan cheesemakers as an anthropologist to document the growing cheese renaissance in the U.S.
I adore Paxton’s book, and I love the idea that curds are part of a new entrepreneurial counterculture. Forget Silicon Valley, hello hillsides!
Brian Civitello of Mystic Cheese is one such rural entrepreneur. You may remember, I wrote about Sea Change, his “English major cheese,” earlier this year (it’s named after a Shakespeare quote). I’ve also written about Melville — after Moby Dick. After eating so many literary allusions, it was time to visit the source.
Where to begin? I was fascinated by so many aspects of Brian’s enterprise. By his business model. By his spaceship-like “cheese pod” (pictured above) which he built out of shipping containers. By his off-road approach to marketing.
Brian’s thinking is unlike any cheesemaker I’ve interviewed. His ideas are culled from 17 years of making cheese in the U.S. and Italy before launching his own business — a one-man cheese making operation sited on a Connecticut dairy farm, where he rents space next to 500 cows.
“Last month, we moved 5,500 pieces of cheese out of 320 square feet,” he told me when I visited in August. Amazing.
Lessons from Brian Civitello
1. If you’re a start-up, consider launching with a fresh cheese.
Brian says: “Our Melville can be out the door in 3 days.” While many cheesemakers want to start out making aged cheeses, Brian points out that sales in fresh cheese can help a dairy start-up get off the ground. Fresh cheeses also require less space since they don’t require long aging times.
2. Don’t overlook non-cheese retailers — like country stores.
One of Brian’s best accounts is a country store on I-95, where the owner loves to shoot the breeze with his customers about Brian’s cheese — the only cheese in the shop. Now, locals and tourists make a special stop for Brian’s cheese — which is good for the store and for Brian’s business.
3. Reconsider being a cheese-plate-only cheese.
Brian sells to both pubs and high-end restaurants. “I want to be on a menu, but I never want to be on a cheese plate — I’m the opposite of everyone else,” he laughs. Cheese plates at restaurants change all the time, he explains, but gastropubs tend to stick by cheeses and turn them into fan favorites. To grow his business, Brian reaches out to a wide range of restaurants and offers up recipes and menu ideas that he’s devised in his own kitchen. He also gives chefs a discount if they mention his brand on the menu.
The upshot: Brian’s approach to cheese making strikes me as an intriguing model for aspiring cheese makers. He’s worked hard to make his operation as economical and efficient as possible. He also knows how to create a market for his cheeses — reaching out to retailers that might be off the map for other makers. I look forward to following his entrepreneurial footsteps.